by Mark Brown)
Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch – either an astonishing masterpiece or tedious, overlong turkey of a novel depending on which critic you read – is favourite to win the UK's only annual book prize for fiction written by women.
The long-awaited novel was one of six shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys women's prize for fiction and will go up against a book it has already done battle with in one of America's most prestigious prizes, the National Book Critics Circle award.
That was won by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her third novel Americanah. The other novels on the Baileys shortlist are Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and three debut novels: Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Audrey Magee's The Undertaking and Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
Helen Fraser, the chair of judges, said they were very excited by the six books. "It is a very diverse list and a very global list. There were many books on the longlist that were very good all the way through but the six books here leaped beyond that in to something really extraordinary."
Tartt's novel, a literary blockbuster that explores all manner of subjects from antiques to gambling to chronic drug abuse, was more than 10 years in the writing and has sharply divided opinion. In the Observer Julie Myerson wrote that she was bored by it, calling it "a Harry Potter tribute novel" and the Sunday Times' Peter Kemp wrote: "No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey."
But most critics loved it. Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian called it an "astonishing" achievement, and Alex O'Connell in the Times said it was "a heavyweight masterpiece".
Fraser suggested it might be because of Tartt's enormous success with her first two books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), that people were lining up to knock her down.
I think it is a fantastic study of grief and aloneness and survival and the impact everything awful in childhood has on your adult life. Our judges liked it a lot, there was a lot of enthusiasm and we're really happy it is on there."
Fraser said that it was possible to almost pair off the books on this year's shortlist. The Goldfinch and McBride's book centre on disastrous childhoods; Lahiri and Adichie explore themes of exile and identity; and Magee and Kent's are historical novels, the first set in wartime Berlin and Stalingrad, and the latter in 19th-century rural Iceland.
The bookmakers William Hill have made Tartt 2/1 favourite, followed by Adichie, a former Orange prize winner with Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007, at 3/1. If Tartt does triumph she will become the sixth consecutive American writer to win the prize.
And it would follow the victory of the American short-story writer George Saunders who won the inaugural Folio prize in March. The Man Booker too could see an American win a British literary prize as it is open to all nationalities for the first time this year.
There are two Irish writers and no British writer on the shortlist, although Lahiri was born in London, moving to the US aged two.
Fraser, former managing director of Penguin and chief executive of the Girls' Day School Trust, said she did not think too much should be read into the lack of British writers.
Jon Howells, of Waterstones, praised what he called "a fabulous shortlist", which had "great scope of style, nationality; small publishers and giants; debut authors and established ones. The judges have hit a perfect balance, six novels of inarguable quality." He tipped one of the debut books to win.
The list of six has emerged from 158 books in competition for the prize, decided by a panel that also includes classicist Mary Beard, writer Denise Mina, newspaper columnist and author Caitlin Moran, and BBC broadcaster Sophie Raworth. The winner of the prize, sponsored for the first time by Baileys, will be announced on 4 June.
• Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – review
• Burial Rites by Hannah Kent – review
• A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride – review
• The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – review
• The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – review
• The Undertaking by Audrey Magee – review